Blog Directory CineVerse: 2021

George and Mary celebrate a diamond anniversary

Thursday, December 30, 2021

On December 20, 1946, an inconspicuous little picture called It’s a Wonderful Life first hit American theaters. Seventy-five years later, we’re still watching and talking about it, which speaks to its lasting influence, emotional potency, and ageless entertainment value. Fittingly, during Christmas week, our CineVerse group took a closer look at this most beloved of all Yuletide movies, and focused on several discussion points, as outlined below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

Why is this film worth celebrating 75 years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • What sustains the film's longevity could be the established ritualistic tradition it has become. You must either be a cave dweller or movie hater to have not heard of the film by now and to have seen at least some of it on television over the holidays. Consider that this is one of only a handful of classic films still shown annually on network (non-cable) television—the only others are the Wizard of Oz, The Ten Commandments, and The Sound of Music.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life still matters because it offers something for every type of viewer: If you are religious, it’s one of the most spiritual films ever created; if you enjoy romance and comedy, it fulfills in those departments; if you’re a fan of noir, suspense, horror, or even science fiction, there are plentiful dark elements at work in the 30-minute fantasy sequence that can scratch those itches; if you appreciate outstanding acting, the movie boasts possibly career-best performances from James Stewart, Thomas Mitchell, and Donna Reed, in addition to tremendous turns by the numerous character actors in the cast; and if you are in the mood for a holiday film, they don’t come any better or more moving than this one.
  • It’s also worth celebrating 75 years later because, despite some dated elements, its ideas and themes are refreshingly modern: George Bailey may have had a wonderful life thanks to his family, friends, and good-hearted nature, but he’s also been shown how dark and seedy the world can be and he’s tasted the bitterness of an unfulfilled dream (sacrificing his dream of becoming an architect and traveling the world.
    • Per writer Rich Cohen: “It’s a Wonderful Life”…is really the most terrifying Hollywood film ever made.” “If you were to cut “It’s a Wonderful Life” by 20 minutes, its true subject would be revealed…the good man driven insane.” “Look again at the closing frames — shots of Jimmy Stewart staring at his friends. In most, he’s joyful. But in a few, he’s terrified. An hour earlier George was ready to kill himself. I don’t think he’s seeing the world that would exist had he never been born. I think he’s seeing the world as it does exist, in his time and also in our own.” “George had been living in Pottersville all along. He just didn’t know it.”
    • Film Spectrum blogger Jason Fraley also posited: “In a world of bank bailouts and home foreclosures, It’s a Wonderful Life is just as relevant today as it was in 1946.” “The internal struggle of America is right there in George Bailey’s angst. Should we engage in overseas adventurism, or turn inward toward the domestic? Should we focus on the rugged individualism of the private sector, or the social safety nets of a compassionate public sector? And should we chase the notion of exceptionalism, or be an important piece of a larger whole? Capra seems to say that America works best when both parts are in their proper proportions.”
  • The movie has remained evergreen because it is intrinsically American, certainly in its themes, characters, and situations but also in its wide historical scope. Consider, the film covers the post-World War I era, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and immediate postwar America masterfully, within the context of its characters and the situations they’re involved in, as only the cinema can—by using effective techniques like montage, flashbacks, vignettes, and voiceover narration.

In what ways was It’s a Wonderful Life influential on cinema and popular culture?

  • While they likely weren’t the first of their kind, the film’s long, uninterrupted takes and extreme romantic close-ups that possibly influenced later filmmakers (for instance, George Stevens, who would use some of these techniques in A Place in the Sun). Recall the famous romantically charged single shot where George and Mary, in close up, talk on the phone and fall in love; also, in the train depot scene when George learns from Harry’s new wife that Harry won’t be relieving him of his work duties; and when Gower the druggist first berates then embraces young George. Leaving important shots like these unbroken gives them more gravity and allows the actors to maintain a consistent emotional resonance and characterization that can be diluted when a scene is broken up into too many shots and counterpoints.
  • There’s the famous freeze-frame on George’s face when he accepts Gower’s suitcase gift; some film scholars say this is among the earliest example of a freeze-frame in a feature film—preceding the ones used in “All About Eve” and “The 400 Blows” years later.
  • Posit the “breaking of the fourth wall” that occurs when George turns his head and eventually faces the camera and us upon running away from his mother’s boarding house; this was very unusual for a non-comedy Hollywood movie.
  • While all of these points can be debated as to their influential value or inventiveness, one thing cannot: This picture forever changed the way that fake snow was created and used in the movies. Before It’s a Wonderful Life, bleached cornflakes, asbestos, and cotton were commonly employed to stand in for the white stuff. But it didn’t look realistic; so Capra tasked RKO special-effects department guru Russell Shearman to devise an innovative new solution, which involved mixing sugar, soap, Foamite found in fire extinguishers, and water to create a more photogenic and practical end product; this invention ended up winning an Academy Award in 1949 and quickly became the go-to recipe for artificial snow in Hollywood movies for the next few decades.
  • Another indisputable truth about this movie’s influence: Contemporary creatives love to feature it in their works. Over the past several decades, It’s a Wonderful Life has made numerous cameos as a diegetic film – meaning it appears on a TV screen being watched by characters in a different movie or TV show – including Gremlins, Beverly Hills 90210, Bruce Almighty, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, The Sopranos, Home Alone, Cinema Paradiso, and so many others.
  • You could even make a case that certain aspects of Its a Wonderful Life – especially the dark fantasy/alternate reality sequence where George is never born – have been riffed on in countless subsequent films and TV shows, such as several episodes of The Twilight Zone, Click, The Butterfly Effect, Shrek Forever After, Bedazzled, Mr. Destiny, and Back to the Future Part II. And the earlier sequences in which George’s life is reviewed by heavenly powers are later echoed in films like Defending Your Life.

Is this James Stewart’s greatest performance?

  • Stewart commands this movie with his unique behavioral acting style. His charming mannerisms, tripping speech patterns, articulated facial expressions, and awkwardly lanky frame create an unforgettable and iconic persona. The playful spirit that builds to romantic tension while falling for Donna Reed's character is spellbinding, and this performance remains an eternal source of enjoyment for new and old audiences alike.
  • It’s hard not to be incredibly moved by the shot in Martini’s bar where Stewart conjures up real tears as he prays for divine help, or the earlier sequence where a thoroughly distraught George comes home on Christmas Eve and lashes out at his wife and children.

Why and how was Frank Capra the ideal director for It’s a Wonderful Life? What special qualities does he bring to the film?

  • As an immigrant child, Capra was impressed by common, everyday people whose lives he so grew to appreciate that his ambition was to someday project them onto the screen. Quite possibly his greatest talent rested in his power to represent the ordinary person’s strength to face insurmountable evil, thereby benefitting his fellow man. Capra realized this power early in his career when he decided to create films that would exhilarate the depressed spirits of the American public, inspired personally by his dramatic recovery from what was apparently a serious illness.
  • Capra envisioned the It’s a Wonderful Life narrative not as a Christmas yarn, but as a story intended for any time of year. He wasn't intimidated by the tale's dark implications of suicide and despair. He saw the potential for transcendence and inspiration, and the depiction of abundant human emotion. And, of course, Capra was already well-skilled in this art, as evidenced by his previous sentimental creations like “Meet John Doe,” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
  • From the beginning, Capra conceived IAWL as his masterwork. He stated in his autobiography: "I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.” “It wasn't made for the oh-so bored critics or the oh-so jaded literati. It was my kind of film for my kind of people.” “I think that a lot of people everywhere will be able to associate themselves with the character (of George Bailey) and will perhaps feel a lot better for having known him. People are seeking spiritual guidance and moral reassurance.”
  • Consider the cinematic techniques Capra uses to tell his story and imbue it with meaning. 
    • First, First, every major character has symbols and motifs associated with them:
      • George is linked to broken down machinery or makeshift technology—his old jalopy of a car, the snow shovel he uses as a sled, the ramshackle house he moves into, the broken railing cap, the fence door that won’t open, the second-hand luggage he accepts as a gift, and the “shabby little office” he works in. This imagery contrasts nicely with the perfect machinery that eludes him—the train waiting to take him out of town, the nicer cars he admires, and the rich man’s office he covets. The words “broken down” are often used by George or about George, as well; and remember that George is denied military service due to his bad ear.
      • Mary and her children are correlated with flowers—the corsages she wears in many scenes, the hydrangea bushes she hides in, the floral garden in front of her mother’s house, the floral wallpaper in that same house, and Zuzu’s flower petals and bedroom furniture featuring floral designs.
      • Interestingly, there’s a dichotomous geometric pattern at work in this film: Mary is associated with rounded objects (the moon she wants George to lasso, phonograph records, her mother’s round-shaped phone receiver, Christmas tree ornaments, the ice cream scoop, rocks used to break windows, flowers, and a loaf of French bread), while George is paired with straight lines and sharp angles (the homes and buildings he didn’t get to build but which he’s lending out money for, office doors and counters, dollar bills, a tree trunk, the bridge, cage bars, travel brochures and posters, the clothesline, picture frames, the lasso rope, and his draftsman table and tools). These patterns coalesce when we see Mary and George in the pregnancy reveal scene: The headboard of their bed features rounded corners surrounding straight bars.
      • Uncle Billy is associated with sympathetic, simple-minded, stray animals—the squirrel and raven.
      • Clarence is named “Odbody” for a reason: he’s a walking oddity who likes old books, antiquated clothing, and old-fashioned libations.
      • The color black is assigned to Mr. Potter, who sports a predominantly black wardrobe that includes black ties and hats (contrasting with Uncle Billy’s white hat), dark and ornately carved furniture, and an eerie black skull and black globe lamp that adorn his desk.
      • Harry exemplifies balance (remember him acrobatically carrying three pies?), dexterity and natural skill (for which he becomes a decorated war hero), good luck (he survives his wartime missions and marries a beautiful woman), and front-page popularity—in contrast to George’s older and “broken down” body and spirit.
    • Further proof of Capra’s skills? Think about his symbolic commentary via clever misc-en-scene. 
      • Case in point: Ponder the changing walls of the Bailey home—Mary wallpapers the walls with pastoral prints, but later we see an anchor pattern on the wall adjacent to George after he returns home tired and angry from a tussle with potter; the anchor reminds us of his dream of traveling and also suggests he’s tied down. Think, too, of the butterfly framings/paintings on the walls of George’s parents’ home and Mary and George’s house, suggesting the elusive freedom that George cannot grasp. Also, recall the clothesline that spatially and symbolically separates George and Clarence within the bridge operator’s room—suggesting that Clarence is on a higher ethereal level than George.
    • Capra is also a master of foreshadowing.
      • That same clothesline image, shown in a similar tilted angle, is echoed earlier in the bedroom scene where Mary reveals she is pregnant—it’s off in the corner, a strange portent of things to come. Also in that scene, consider the odd placement of the pull-string with a loop at the end that comes between George and Mary lying in bed—visually insinuating a noose (that foreboding symbol of suicide/doom). Vertical bars and shadows are also prevalent as foreshadowing devices; remember how, in that previously mentioned bedroom scene, we see the shadows of vertical lines, like prison bars, behind George; earlier, George is separated from the Building and Loan throng by a steel gate that conjures up imagery of a prison door; and Uncle Billy peers through the vertical bars on the front gate at the bank, another visual cue that bad outcomes are imminent.
    • Give thought, as well, to Capra’s misc-en-scene depth. 
      • We are shown a richly detailed foreground, middle ground, and background in many settings, especially Potter’s office, the Building & Loan office, the back room of the pharmacy, and even George’s living room. Everything we see has been carefully chosen to give us texture, backstory, and characterization.
    • While he didn’t write the musical score, Capra was a proponent of leitmotifs (repeated musical cues). Buffalo Gals is repeated throughout the film to remind us of the loving bond between George and Mary; we hear “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” again and again as a kind of theme for Clarence; and “Hark the Herald” is played in connotation with kith and kin.

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in It’s a Wonderful Life?

  • No man is a failure who has friends.
  • The struggle of the little guy to get ahead in a rigged system run by oligarchs.
  • The depths of personal depression, based on negative personal circumstances, can drive a person to despondency and surrender.
  • The profound butterfly effect that each human being can have upon his fellow man and environment.
  • The dark underbelly that can exist beneath our glass-half-full outlook on the world.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life also shares common themes that run throughout many Capra films, including:
    • Man conflicted by alternating realities. Ruminate a moment on George Bailey: He has a lust for Violet but a need for Mary, and he desires fame and success and to escape the confines of social responsibilities yet he’s compelled to stay in Bedford Falls and mortgage his dreams to keep a positive cash flow.
    • The masses are easily swayed, for better or for worse, and populist values can be powerful: Consider how easily manipulated people are in this film, as well in Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and other Capra works.

What is this movie’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • When it comes to gifts, It’s a Wonderful Life is like the magical sack Santa Claus carries, endlessly replenishing its contents with countless presents. But one gift many would likely put at the top is the film’s amazing capacity to draw contemporary audiences by invoking nostalgia in three key ways—a wistfulness for a simpler time, its focus on a close-knit hometown community, which, for many people doesn’t exist any longer, and its emphasis on fundamental humanistic values. Even if modern viewers didn’t grow up with those three elements, It’s a Wonderful Life can make them wish they did, which is an extremely impactful quality. Some are quick to criticize what they characterize as the mawkishly manipulative, over-sentimentalized nature of this film as a turnoff, “Capra-corny,” if you will. But it’s hard to name a more emotionally powerful picture, one that can instantly elicit humility, empathy, gratitude, faith in human nature, and, ultimately, tears – even on an umpteenth screening. If the mark of a well-made and meritorious film is to produce a genuine emotional response and allow the viewer to easily connect with and understand its characters and their conflicts, then It’s a Wonderful Life exceeds all expectations for a wonderful movie.
  • Its second-greatest gift is the stellar portrayal of a relatable and ordinary yet extraordinary man by the incomparable James Stewart. Stewart had many exemplary roles in his career that deserve consideration as his very best, including Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Elwood Dowd in Harvey, Jon Ferguson in Vertigo, Lin McAdam in Winchester 73, and Mike Connor in The Philadelphia Story. But many would crown his personification of George Bailey as the finest among that bunch.

Similar works

  • A Christmas Carol
  • Meet John Doe, featuring another Capra character who plans to commit suicide on Christmas Eve
  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Back to the Future Part II—in which another character sees a negative alternate reality version of his hometown
  • The Majestic

Other films directed by Frank Capra

  • It Happened One Night
  • Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
  • Lost Horizon
  • You Can’t Take it With You
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  • Meet John Doe


Tales of moonlight and rain from the land of the rising sun

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Ugetsu, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, is a cherished work of Japanese and world cinema for many reasons, from its stunning compositions and period-authentic costumes to its resonant themes and unique sound design. Our CineVerse mission in mid-December was to decipher the many truths imbued in this timeless masterwork from 1953. Our observations are shared below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).
  • Ugetsu Monogatari, which means “Tales of Moonlight and Rain,” was a key work that helped Western audiences discover Japanese cinema, much as Rashomon did three years earlier.
  • This film impressively weaves between the real and the surreal, the living world and the ghost world.
    • The scene where the two families traveled by boat along a fog-enshrouded lake is one of the most visually and tonally haunting sequences ever captured on film.
  • Contrary to expectations, the ghost sequences in this movie aren’t intended to shock or horrify. Recall how the spirit of Miyagi is gentle, loving, and non-threatening, for instance. And consider how Wakasa is actually a sympathetic victim of previous violence who rightfully desires love, faithfulness, and happiness.
  • Interestingly, our moral judgments and empathy can change throughout the movie. While we may feel consistent sympathy for Miyagi and her young child, it’s easy to feel unsympathetic for Genjuro and Tobei throughout the story, until perhaps Genjuro tries to escape the ghost of Lady Wakasa and Tobei is humbled by learning that his wife has been victimized.
  • The film is surprisingly relevant today in how it depicts the seemingly eternal disconnect between male and female partners, what each gender often values more, and how men often misinterpret what they think will make women happy.

Major themes

  • The repercussions of greed, envy, unbridled ambition, infidelity, and hedonistic pleasures.
    • However, Criterion Collection essayist Phillip Lopate wrote: “Are we to take it, then, that the moral of the film is: better stay at home, cultivate your garden, nose to the grindstone? No. Mizoguchi’s viewpoint is not cautionary but realistic: this is the way human beings are, never satisfied; everything changes, life is suffering, one cannot avoid one’s fate. If they had stayed home, they might just as easily have been killed by pillaging soldiers. The fact that they chose to leave gives us a plot, and some ineffably lovely, heartbreaking sequences.”
  • The value of honest work, simple pleasures, and a united family.
  • Taking for granted the blessings and good fortune you’ve been given.
  • The female victims and casualties of a patriarchal society driven by male egos.
    • Slant Magazine film critic Chuck Bowen wrote: “Ugetsu is a tragic and irreconcilably rapturous poem of violation. In the tradition of many male directors preoccupied with the atrocities suffered by women, Mizoguchi expresses his compassion through a pronounced and cleansing pitilessness.”
  • Appreciating the true value of skill, artistry, and expertise. 
    • According to film scholar Robin Wood: “Genjūrō's pottery…evolves in three phases, reflecting Mizoguchi's changing approach to filmmaking. Genjūrō begins making the pottery for commercial reasons, shifts to pure aesthetics while isolated with Lady Wakasa, and finally moves on to a style that reflects life and strives to understand it.” Some have theorized that Genjuro is a stand-in for the director Mizoguchi.
  • Expressing the emotional trauma suffered by the Japanese people following their country’s aggressive actions that provoked and prolonged World War II, with the 16th-century civil war setting of this story representing WWII.

Hallmarks of Mizoguchi’s filmmaking artistry

  • The “flowing scroll shot” was one of his trademarks, a “one-shot-one-scene” approach that employed long takes without cuts and sweeping pans across the landscape in the style of a Japanese scroll painting.
  • He favored fluid and continual camera movements meant to convey a poetic lyricism.
  • The director rarely used close-ups, often opting instead to keep the camera far back from the subject and sometimes choosing unconventional camera placements, as demonstrated by the emotionally powerful overhead shot of Miyagi being attacked by the soldiers on the road.
  • Mizoguchi was also inventive and innovative. Recall the nighttime scene where Genjuro and Lady Wasaka are bathing nude; the camera tracks left and cuts seamlessly using a dissolve to a daytime scene where the couple is picnicking near the picturesque shores of a shimmering lake.

Similar works

  • Throne of Blood
  • Rashomon
  • Kwaidan
  • Onibaba
  • Stories by French writer Guy de Maupassant

Other films by Kenji Mizoguchi

  • The 47 Ronin
  • The Life of Oharu
  • Sansho the Bailiff
  • New Tales of the Taira Clan
  • Street of Shame


Examining A Place in the Sun—70 years later

Friday, December 17, 2021

Named by the AFI as one of the top 100 American films of all time in its 1998 list, A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens, remains a memorable work of lasting craftsmanship and significance. Originally released in 1951, this picture persists as a haunting morality tale that is both endemic of its era and resonant seven decades later.

Still have your doubts? Read on for more compelling evidence of why this film deserves to be cherished and revisited.

Why does A Place in the Sun still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It still matters because it remains an extremely effective mashup of several subgenres. A Place in the Sun satisfies as a romantic melodrama, a noirish thriller, a courtroom drama, and a richly-themed tragedy.
  • A Place in the Sun has stood the test of time because the performances resonate 70 years later. This could be Montgomery Clift’s finest two hours of film; it’s one of Elizabeth Taylor’s most impressive performances, especially considering how unproven she was as a serious dramatic actress before this and how young she is here – 17 years old; and Shelley Winters basically creates the template for the frumpy, naïve, clinging love interest who eventually gets murdered, infusing her character of Alice with a sensitively trusting nature but unglamorous banality that sharply contrasts with the actress’s image at the time and with Taylor’s Angela. (Note that Alice is not some flirty floozy who would seem to deserve her fate; she’s a more sympathetic character today than she was in 1951.) Deservingly, both Winters and Clift were nominated for Oscars for their work in this movie.
    • It also helps that the teenage Taylor was smitten with Clift. Even though Clift, a gay actor, did not reciprocate the offscreen affection, the on-screen romantic chemistry is evident.
  • It’s worth celebrating because it continues to be one of the most apropos and poetic movie titles of all time, living up to its name “A Place in the Sun” by effectively contrasting the light and dark natures of a fascinatingly complex lead character. Many of the scenes involving George with Alice employ noirish high-contrast lighting and occur at night or in inky black environments. But when George is around Angela, the world is literally and figuratively a brighter place, with the filmmakers employing ample natural and artificial light to underscore how bright George’s potential future is if he chooses this path.
    • Film critic Leonard Maltin said: “Elizabeth Taylor represents the aspirational brightness that Montgomery Clift so desperately wants. But it all changes when the scene involves Shelley Winters.”

In what ways was A Place in the Sun influential on cinema and/or popular culture?

  • It was notable in its day for its creatively expressive use of extended overlapping dissolves between shots and scenes that juxtapose images that often contrast with each other, such as a nighttime shot of Alice’s bedroom that transitions into an early morning shot and, later, a darkly-lit shot of George’s pious mother slowly dissipating into a brightly-lit image of George attending a swanky party.
  • Stevens’ choice to use extreme close-up over-the-shoulder shots of Angela and George embracing and kissing was unusual for its day; yet these incredibly tight soft-focus images proved highly memorable and influential, with the first kiss scene between George and Angela often appearing in many highlight reels referencing some of the most iconic imagery Hollywood ever created.
  • The picture also proved controversial in its depiction of a pregnant unwed mother seeking an abortion. The Hays code wouldn’t allow the use of the words “pregnancy” or “abortion,” so the filmmakers had to dance around these words and ideas carefully. Alice tells the doctor that she’s gotten in trouble, which was another way of saying pregnant, and in a roundabout way is asking the doctor to help her and the pregnancy, which the doctor refuses. This was regarded as a taboo subject for a Hollywood film in those days.
  • A Place in the Sun may have created fashion trends or at least made audiences take notice of the look and attire of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor’s wardrobe was designed by the legendary Edith Head, and apparently some of her outfits proved popular in the fashion world, while Clift’s simple leather jacket and white T-shirt look predates later 1950s icons like James Dean and Jack Kerouac.
  • You could debatably trace a throughline from the passion-dripping kissing sequences in A Place in the Sun to the sultry rolling-in-the-surf shots two years later in From Here to Eternity and also attribute this movie’s melodramatic elements as emotionally inspirational fodder for the films of Douglas Sirk years later, like Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, and Imitation of life.
  • Ponder, as well, that A Place in the Sun would likely have been a major influence on Woody Allen’s excellent Match Point 54 years later.

Why and how was George Stevens the ideal director for A Place in the Sun? What special qualities does he bring to the film?

  • Stevens wasn’t afraid to push boundaries and break from cinematic conventions. For instance, he sometimes puts a key character’s back to the camera for long stretches. Cases in point: Alice faces George but is turned away from us in the bedroom scene where George arrives late on his birthday; and George faces Angela when she visits him on death row.
  • Stevens and his cinematographer William Mellor, both of whom won Academy Awards for their work in this film, didn’t balk at extremely dark compositions and shadowy nighttime scenes. The sequence where George enters Alice’s residence and woos her in the utterly black edges of the frame is a worthy example, as is the later montage where George tries to escape through the murky forest.
  • This director also valued long, uninterrupted takes that allow a scene to unfold organically and the actors to do the heavy lifting. Exhibit A: the previously mentioned scene where George arrives late to Alice’s home on his birthday, which primarily occurs in one beautifully acted unbroken shot.
  • Stevens shrewdly uses motifs to suggest ideas and create foreshadowing. One repeated pattern is George being separated from someone or something by a kind of barrier, such as George standing outside Alice’s window, George watching Angela across the front gate of the house, and George behind prison bars. Another motif is drowning, which is suggested by the painting of Ophelia (a character who drowned in Shakespeare’s Hamlet), Alice’s mentioning that she cannot swim, and the news broadcast that cautions listeners to be careful when celebrating the holiday.
  • Likewise, Stevens had a gift for tapping the ideal thespian talent, choosing then-glamour girl Shelley Winters as a dowdy lower-class love interest to George and casting a 17-year-old Elizabeth Taylor in the radiant role of Angela. This film announced the arrival of both as serious talented actresses to be reckoned with.
  • The director and his collaborators also demonstrate a form of cinematic mastery in how efficiently and economically they introduce the story, its characters, and the central conflict. Within the first 10 minutes, George and his lower-class predicament are impressively well-established, as is Alice. The filmmakers even use the opening credits sequence to get the narrative machinery going, not wasting those first few minutes to begin the tale.
  • Stevens was known for shooting a lot of film and providing lots of coverage to give himself more flexibility during the editing process, and this approach likely paid off with A Place in the Sun, as nearly every shot seems perfectly designed, framed, lit, and acted.
  • George Stevens is criticized by some for sometimes being overly symbolic, lacking nuance, and painting in broad melodramatic brushstrokes. Consider how on-the-nose the “Vickers” neon sign glowing outside George’s bedroom window is, for example, or how ripe for parody the extreme close-up soft-focus kisses between Angela and George appear to be. Others, however, credit Stevens with being innovative and ahead of his time in his approaches used in this film.
    • Anna Swanson of Film School Rejects wrote: “The film has yet to be canonized the way other comparable movies have been, partly because of incorrect and reductive assessments of what the norms were in the 50s and an attitude that melodrama and nuance cannot go hand in hand…A Place In The Sun was praised in 1951 for being a sweeping, emotional narrative more than willing to wrestle with — but not provide any easy answers for — difficult questions about morality and guilt…Melodramatic style or not, these are themes that have a place in our world as much as they did in the world of the 50s.”

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in this movie?

  • The dark side of the American dream. Seventy years ago, nearly every man aspired to have what George craved: a beautiful wife, wealth, and a successful climb up the social ladder. But A Place in the Sun serves as a cautionary tale that this dream can turn into a nightmare, given the right circumstances.
    • Film reviewer Michael Barrett wrote: “One of the film’s tricks is to discomfort us by making us despise George and sympathize with him…To see him as winner and loser, as the constructor of his own downfall, as the victim of his own envy, is implicitly to question the tease of the American Dream. That’s how Dreiser saw it and Stevens’ meticulous staging and orchestration conveys these ideas while constructing one of the ultimate statements on how Hollywood cinema serves up desire, literally projecting our desires as so huge, dreamy, and intoxicating that we can taste them.”
  • The inescapability of your past. George cannot untether himself from his background as the son of poor religious good Samaritans or his lack of education and financial resources, just as he cannot evade his recent past, in which he rushed into a relationship with disastrous consequences for his ambitions. This movie reminds us that we can’t outrun our identity or the regretful choices we’ve made.
    • George seems to forget the spiritual lessons and honest work ethic instilled in him by his mother, choosing instead to devote himself to a female from a privileged background, Angela, who dotes on George and whispers in his ear, “tell mama…tell mama all.”
    • Film critic Glenn Erickson wrote: “The key achievement of A Place in the Sun is that its doomed spiral of events never seems like a fated, noirish tale. George Eastman is an individual, and not a symbol of oppression, and neither fault of character, nor a cruel society can be given the blame for his sad story.”
  • The outsider versus the insider. George has a dual identity, that of the privileged fortunate son who, by virtue of family lineage, has an opportunity to social climb and be part of the “in-crowd”; at the same time, he’s the perpetual outsider, the enigmatic odd duck in the Eastman line who doesn’t quite fit in. To visually emphasize the latter, George often faces away from the camera, showing us his back and standing out from other characters in the same frame.
  • Be careful what you wish for – you just might get it. George seems to have what he wants in his grasp – the girl, the career, the social acceptance, the bright future – but ultimately he experiences karmic comeuppance because he had to shirk his responsibilities and deceive to get there and because he had evil intentions regarding Alice.
  • Watching and being watched. Throughout the story, we see George being observed by those around him, either out of curiosity, attraction, suspicion, or animosity. And we hear Angela about to say “I love you” to George, but cuts the remark short and says “Are they looking at us?” as she makes eye contact with the camera and, by extension, us.

What is this movie’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • A Place in the Sun continues to bestow several greatest gifts on fans and admirers of this film. First, it’s still a Grade A example of the power of the Hollywood fantasy machine, giving us an utterly delectable aspirational mirage with dreamily romanticized imagery and serving particularly as a male wish-fulfillment movie about the pleasures of the perfect life—what it’s like to have the world’s most beautiful woman head over heels in love with you, to be on the fast track to career success, and to accepted as part of the “in-crowd.”
  • But its second greatest gift is that reminds us that we cannot escape our moral responsibilities nor the earlier choices we’ve made. Leading a double life simply isn’t sustainable, a sobering lesson the film serves up by contrasting George’s blissful illusions with a terrifyingly stark reality: It’s easy to feel trapped into a life of compromises, sacrifices, and surrender of your ambitions if you take what you have for granted and follow temptation.
  • What makes this film a cut above is that it’s not a simple black-and-white cautionary tale; it explores George’s quandary in intricate shades of gray. Yes, George is judged as guilty by a jury of his peers and put to death, but the truth of his culpability is cloudy. Seven decades after its release, it’s easier to poke holes in George’s defense that he is legally innocent, and contemporary audiences are surely more sensitive to the injustices experienced by Alice. But personally, in my most recent rewatch of A Place in the Sun, I put myself in George’s shoes and wondered, what would I do in his situation? I’m not saying I would choose adultery, murder, or deceit; I’m suggesting that we often don’t know what we're capable of under the right circumstances. And to me, that makes this film more than a straightforward entertainment: It’s a picture that makes you think and wonder, “What if?”.


It's a wonderful podcast

Thursday, December 16, 2021

In Cineversary podcast episode #42, host Erik Martin honors the 75th anniversary of It's a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra, by interviewing Jeanine Basinger, the recently retired film studies professor at Wesleyan University and the author of The It’s A Wonderful Life Book. Together, they take the scenic route to Bedford Falls and explore why the film is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the movie in 2021, and more. This episode also features a conversation between Erik and Tom Lucas, vice president of studio relations for Fathom Events, the entertainment content provider that brings classic movies back to the big screen for anniversary rereleases; Tom reveals Fathom's theatrical anniversary slate for 2022.
Jeanine Basinger and Tom Lucas

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotifyGoogle PodcastsBreakerCastboxPocket CastsPodBeanRadioPublic, and Overcast.

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Turning Ove a new leaf

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Redemption tales of Scrooge-like characters always warm the heart and stir the soul, and A Man Called Ove—a Swedish film from 2015 directed by Hannes Holm—is no exception. Our CineVerse group took an in-depth look at this feature last week and came away with key insights and observations (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find unusual, unanticipated, extraordinary, or less than satisfactory about A Man Called Ove?

  • The filmmakers choose an interesting and offbeat way of unfolding the major character’s backstory: They use the tried-and-true flashback method, but they present these flashbacks typically only when Ove is near death’s door during his suicidal attempts, suggesting that his life memories are flashing before his eyes at these moments. This is an organic and uncontrived technique for providing needed context to the character.
  • The movie risks being a little too cute for its own good in some moments, attempting to tug on the heartstrings and create a more redeemable protagonist, but it’s hard not to fall under the sentimental sway of this life-affirming story and the arc of this character.
  • Likewise, it’s easy to criticize this film for being relatively predictable and indulging in clichés, including the expected reclamation of a flawed personality and the bonding between two opposites so that Ove and Parvenaugh become a surrogate father and daughter, respectively. You could also make a case that the running gag – Ove continually being interrupted in his attempts to end his life – while uproariously funny perhaps in the first few examples, becomes maudlin, borders on repetitive, and threatens to overwhelm the comedy with its dark implications. Yet, it’s a great premise for a character study on which to hang a larger narrative.
  • There are multiple endings at work here: First, the birth of Parvenaugh’s baby, then a close shave with death when Ove collapses, then his actual demise, which all occur in a matter of minutes.
  • The comedic tone, while steeped in black humor, doesn’t feel inappropriate. Film critic Odie Henderson wrote: that the black humor “doesn’t arise from any mockery of Ove’s pain over missing his spouse. That is presented as real, understandable pain. Instead, the humor comes from Ove’s stubbornness as a creature of habit.”

Major themes

  • No man is an island, or, as Parvenaugh tells Ove, “No one manages completely on their own.” Despite his stubbornness and grumpiness, Ove needs others around him and vice versa. Without the love and friendship of Parvenaugh and her family, for example, he likely would have successfully committed suicide much earlier in the story. And without the aid and intervention of Ove, Rune would have ended up in a nursing home against his wife’s wishes and the Parvenaugh’s family would not have benefitted from knowing Ove.
  • “Who we are is a result of our experiences, our decisions, our deeds, the company we keep, and the people we come to love,” according to reviewer Andrew Gaudion with The Hollywood News. Taking a closer look at Ove the man, we can deduce that he is crusty and bitter based on the bad luck that life has thrown him, including the deaths of his parents early in life, the disablement of his wife, the loss of his child, and the passing of Sonja.
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover. Ove would appear hopelessly irredeemable as an ultra-critical perfectionist, cynical curmudgeon, and embittered old man, but he demonstrates innate goodness and selflessness time and again throughout the movie. Case in point: His rescuing of a man fallen from the train platform, his taking in of the stray cat and the gay man who sought temporary refuge, and his plentiful considerate acts as a neighbor—from teaching Parvenaugh how to drive to helping Rune avoid the nursing home. Like Scrooge and the Grinch, his seemingly small heart grows – literally and figuratively by the end of the story. Ironically, his enlarged cardiac muscle, a symbol of his growing compassion, contributes to his early death and helps to prevent him from achieving his suicidal goals.

Similar works

  • Gran Torino
  • About Schmidt
  • Nobody’s Fool
  • St. Vincent
  • Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself
  • A Single Man

Other films by Hannes Holm

  • Ted – Show Me Love
  • Behind Blue Skies
  • A Christmas Tale


Examining a dark flower of a film one petal at a time

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The inventive team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created a string of memorable films in the UK, especially in the 1940s. One great example is Black Narcissus, which boasts an intense chromatic palette and absorbing screenplay that rewards viewers all these years later. Our CineVerse group put the magnifying glass to this movie last week and posited many opinions and insights, as summarized below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

How is Black Narcissus different, unexpected, surprising, or memorable?

  • The movie serves up a sumptuous visual feast and satiates the senses thanks to the dazzling technicolor cinematography – groundbreaking in its day – its elaborate art design, and its attempt to re-create an exotic foreign locale, even though this was filmed in the contrived and carefully controlled settings of a film studio in Britain, not on location in India. The cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, won an Oscar for his work on this production.
  • This would have been a daring and groundbreaking picture for 1947 for a few reasons:
    • Because of its erotic and sensual undertones, as evidenced by the seductive looks and body movements of Sister Ruth and Kanchi, in particular.
    • It was groundbreaking for a 1947 color film to show a character stained with bright red blood; even mainstream horror movies didn’t attempt to do this until the late 1950s.
    • We get a moment of subjective camera, in which Sister Ruth sees red, as we do, and faints, as the image fades to blue.
  • The artificiality of the production can either be a hindrance or an asset to the movie. Consider the aesthetically impressive matte paintings that can’t possibly do justice to the majesty of the Himalayas, and the British actors cast in native Indian roles. The fact that it is such an obviously fabricated world meant to mimic the real India lends credence to one of the movie’s key themes: that of trying to remake a wild and untamed world to fit your sensibilities and illusions.
  • Interestingly, the Catholic National Legion of Decency banned the film in America as an “affront to religion and religious life” and because it attempted to depict “an escape for the abnormal, the neurotic, and the frustrated.”
  • This movie made a huge impression on Martin Scorsese, who used some of the framing techniques in his The Color of Money; additionally, the visual design and imagery of the Disney movie Frozen was inspired by Black Narcissus.

Major themes

  • The folly of trying to make reality fit to an idealized image, and the hubris of trying to customize the world to your own conditions and design. The British have imposed themselves upon a foreign and exotic land that they can’t possibly control. Ultimately, they are forced to abandon the environment and allow its native peoples and culture to exist organically.
    • Criterion Collection essayist Kent Jones wrote: “Sister Clodagh and her charges at St. Faith are confident that they can keep the past (their pasts and the past of their new dwelling, a former brothel) from intruding on the present, but they cannot. The giddily bedeviled Sister Ruth wishes to be neither an underling nor seriously disturbed, but she is both. Sister Honey denies that one of the local babies is mortally ill and that his death is inevitable. And none of the sisters want to recognize the powerfully disorienting effects of the vertiginous depths immediately beyond their mountain convent, or the pure, clean air endlessly gusting through their habits, or the vast, shimmering distance stretching out to the great Himalayan peaks… the sisters in Black Narcissus are taken aback to find their buried memories and unfulfilled yearnings spontaneously conjured to life as they contemplate the apparently limitless horizon.”
  • The death of an empire and the end of colonialism. This story was seen as a parable or allegory for the end of the British Empire, which retreated from India after the country earned its independence from Britain in 1947. Film critic Dave Kehr wrote that the final sequence in which the nuns withdraw from the mountain is not an image of defeat “but of a respectful, rational retreat from something that England never owned nor understood.”
  • The inescapable and overwhelming power of nature unrestrained and its ability to sway your decision-making and pragmatic judgment.
  • The dangers of repressed desire. Sister Ruth grows increasingly unhinged out of jealousy and suppressed sexuality.
  • The title itself, Black Narcissus, which refers to a famous perfume of the day, conjures us potent imagery, making us think of the words “narcissism,” “black,” and “dark,” beautiful flowers/plants, and the figure from Greek mythology known for his beauty.

Similar works

  • The River
  • Lost Horizon
  • Body & Soul
  • The Nun (1966)
  • Novitiate
  • Lilies of the Field
  • The Mission
  • Aguirre: The Wrath of God

Other films by Powell and Pressburger

  • The Red Shoes
  • The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
  • Tales of Hoffman
  • A Matter of Life and Death
  • I Know Where I’m Going!


Our verdict? The Insult is a must-see movie

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Quality films can easily be found beyond the shores of the United States – if you are willing to seek them out. A great example is The Insult, a movie from Lebanon that is relatively easy to understand and which strikes a universal chord, regardless of your ethnicity, politics, or sociocultural traits. The CineVerse faithful explored this picture last week, arriving at various truths and opinions about it in short order, including the following (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What did you find intriguing, unforeseen, memorable, or otherwise about The Insult?

  • The verdict, that Yasser is found not guilty, feels anticlimactic after he manipulates Tony into hitting him, which triggers his long-expected apology. Fortunately, the filmmakers didn’t try to balance the scales by having both men found guilty, as the head judge hinted was a possibility.
  • It’s a surprise when Tony unexpectedly helps Yasser get his stalled vehicle started, despite the tension between them never being thicker than at that point. You could make a case that this good Samaritan act happens too early in the narrative, therefore defusing the tension and lowering the stakes. But the decision to not have Tony or Yasser talk during this moment or discuss this incident later can be appreciated. It’s a brilliant silent exchange in which so much is conveyed without words being spoken.
  • Likewise, the filmmakers possibly missed an opportunity to ratchet up the suspense ever tighter by not showing more of the peripheral effect of this high-profile court case and its escalation of the public watching it. We see a few shots of agitated people from both camps, and we are shown a TV interview in which a politician is asked about the case, but the filmmakers could have layered on more shots and scenes that underscored the gravity of this case and how it’s verdict could light a tinderbox. While it’s believable that the not guilty verdict for Yasser is likely the outcome that yields the least outrage and public violence, it’s a bit implausible to think there wouldn’t have been more anger vented by Lebanese Christians. Then again, the filmmakers are trying to tell a morality tale here that hopefully inspires viewers to tamp down their outrage and emotions and look at the court judgment from both sides while keeping an open mind.
  • The Insult contains two melodramatic subplots that arguably are unnecessary: the baby born with complications and struggling in the NICU, and the father/daughter lawyer conflict. Without these two side strands, the story and the movie would still have packed plenty of dramatic power and, debatably, would have been a bit more streamlined and less emotionally manipulative.

Major themes

  • The reopening of old wounds. Both Tony and Yasser, as well as many of their friends, family, and representatives, carry the psychological scars of the Christian-Palestinian conflict that has been smoldering for years. The insults and physical aggression Yasser and Tony direct toward each other, as well as the trial and the publicity surrounding it, are painfully tearing off emotional scabs that will be slow to heal.
  • The importance of feeling empathy and putting yourself in another person’s shoes. Tony and Yasser are each stubborn, proud men who are quick to anger and slow to make peace, serving as a microcosm example of how quickly some sociocultural and political conflicts between tribes can escalate, fester, and linger.

Similar works

  • The Official Story
  • The Battle of Algiers
  • The Collini Case
  • Inherit the Wind

Other films by Ziad Doueiri

  • West Beirut
  • The Attack


'Tis the season to appreciate Frankenstein – 90 years later

Thursday, December 2, 2021

On November 21, 1931, a fascinating creation was unleashed upon unprepared American audiences that would forever change the trajectory of horror cinema and establish Universal as the indisputable masters of cinematic macabre. It was the debut of Frankenstein, a movie--and a monster--that stands as the crown jewel among the studio's fright features.

Here are several compelling arguments for why this picture remains evergreen, even if the doctor's creation still shimmers in glorious black-and-white. 

Why is this film worth celebrating all these years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It still resonates because the creature remains embedded in our consciousness, still capable of evoking pathos, empathy, and awe in the viewer. Interestingly, while the narrative is decidedly more focused on the states and fates of Henry, Elizabeth, and their friends and family, modern audiences really only care about and identify with the monster, who isn’t even shown until midway through the picture.
  • Despite losing its shock value long ago, and appearing relatively quaint today, the 1931 Frankenstein commands respect and admiration thanks to its impressive reputation as a groundbreaking work of horror cinema. Fans and students of classic film venerate the picture because it was the first of its kind in many ways, proving extremely controversial and horrifying 90 years ago with its imagery of grave robbing, hanged bodies, cadavers on medical carts, hypodermic needles, a drowned child, and a hulking monstrosity, along with the blasphemous line “in the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God” – disturbing elements that contributed to the movie being censored in some communities and upon reissue. It’s been reported that some attendees fled movie theaters in abject terror while watching Frankenstein in its first run.
  • Frankenstein is given extra prestige because it was released in 1931, one of the most seminal years in horror movie history, when Dracula, M, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were also introduced to film audiences.
  • It’s also worth celebrating because it’s a movie that rewards cinephiles, who can easily spot the earlier films that influenced it and the subsequent works it inspired. For example, attentive cineastes can identify the expressionistic, surrealistic, nightmarish sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the monster character in Der Golem, the high contrast lighting of Nosferatu, and the laboratory, electrical gadgets, and robot Maria of Metropolis as influences on Universal’s Frankenstein. These works of German Expressionism and that movement’s surreal architectural style is obvious in the twisting, contorted architecture of the laboratory and its geometrically wonky adjacent rooms and skewed staircase.
  • Through the lens of 2021, it’s interesting to note that two females – Mary Shelley and playwright Peggy Webling – are primarily responsible for laying the narrative foundation for this tale, and a gay man – director James Whale – proved crucial in making this story come to life on screen.

In what ways was Frankenstein influential on cinema and popular culture? Was it the first of its kind in any way, and what trends did it set?

  • In his book Fright Favorites, film historian David Skal called the 1931 Frankenstein “the most imitated monster movie ever made,” and it’s hard to argue otherwise. This movie introduces so many concepts, conventions, and what would become clichés to the horror genre – from the design and scope of the mad scientist laboratory to the trope of an angry torch-wielding mob to the notion of a sympathetic screen monster audiences could identify with to the character of the disfigured assistant.
  • This is regarded as the most important, iconic, and instantly identifiable creature design in movie history. Even today, children seem to spring from the womb with the seemingly innate ability to instantly recognize the Frankenstein monster, which speaks to the lasting impact of the inspired makeup work by Jack Pierce and the unforgettable performance by Boris Karloff.
  • Its most impressive sequence, the creation scene, and its most memorable set-piece, Frankenstein’s laboratory (equipped with all manner of eye-catching electrical apparatus), inspired so many mad scientist milieus to come and set the design template for what a monster-making workshop should look like. And the film’s most famous line, “It’s alive,” has become firmly entrenched in the fabric of pop culture, serving as possibly the most quotable line in horror movie history. You hear it, for example, every time you watch the opening of the TV program Robot Chicken.
  • Next to Dracula, the story of Frankenstein has been adapted for more works of film and television than any other monster or fantastical creation. I counted at least 120 instances of Frankenstein being made for the big or small screen, with only three adaptations, all silent, preceding the 1931 version. While this isn’t the first rendition of the classic tale, Universal’s outing undoubtedly was the most impactful and remains the most cherished, studied, and imitated of all the dozens of Frankenstein-related movie and TV entertainments.
  • Interestingly, this film set the prototype for an imaginary amalgamated European setting, not anchored in any particular year or era, as the backdrop to most of its monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. The “Goldstadt” city where this story occurs doesn’t exist in the real world, but the word itself and the dress and cultural celebrating of the townspeople suggest somewhere in Germany – even though many of its citizens have British accents.

What is it about the performance of Boris Karloff and the creature design/makeup work of Jack Pierce that makes this film and its monster character so special?

  • One of the keys to appreciating this characterization of the monster is that the filmmakers and the actor portrayed him as a mute and intellectually stunted figure of pity, contrary to the source novel that depicts Frankenstein’s creation as an intelligent, verbose, and deviously vengeful figure. Karloff uses expressive physical gestures and pantomime to great effect in this personification, which gives the character some semblance of dignity and humanity that elicits a powerful emotional reaction in the viewer.
  • Film reviewer Glenn Erickson wrote, through Karloff’s talents, the monster is a “misunderstood outsider, a black sheep, an unwanted delinquent child, a rebel without a soul. No wonder every kid secretly identifies with him.”

Why and how was James Whale the ideal director for Frankenstein? What special qualities does he bring to the film?

  • Ponder how efficient and streamlined the story is; The creation scene occurs merely 14 minutes into the movie, with the monster introduced at roughly the midway point. There are a handful of frivolous scenes that arguably could have been cut, but the economy of storytelling is evident.
  • Reflect on the verticality of many compositions, which emphasize tall ceilings such as in the lecture hall, Henry’s laboratory, the foyer of his mansion, the room where the monster reaches out to the light above, and the Baron’s house; towering and high structures like the laboratory tower and staircase and the windmill; and overhead camera shots that can make characters appear small in a large surrounding environment. The 1.20:1 aspect ratio used benefits these vertical designs.
  • Think about the moving camera choices, including the panning across the attendees in the graveyard in the very first shot, the tracking camera as it follows Henry and his bride across walls and between rooms, and the emotionally powerful unbroken tracking shot of the woodcutter carrying his dead daughter through the streets of Goldstadt.
  • Pay attention to the curious use of close-ups, including the scene introducing Elizabeth and Victor, which features four consecutive close-ups, and, most famously, the introduction of the monster via three advancing close-ups.
  • Then there’s the decision, although probably not made by Whale, to issue a warning at the start of the movie, which peculiarly features the actor Edward Van Sloan standing on a theater stage and addressing an invisible audience without looking directly at the camera.
  • You could make a claim that Whale is the horror genre’s best or most influential director, with the filmmaker also having helmed The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Old Dark House.

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in this adaptation of Frankenstein?

  • Man’s hubristic attempt to defy the laws of nature by bypassing the organic means of creation and pursuing an unnatural and artificial form of creation.
  • Science run amok, man working contrary to the divine, and the dangers of playing God.
  • The creator abandoning his creation, which could be a veiled statement on the indifference of God or a higher power to our suffering, the cruel nature of existence, or child abuse and neglect caused by an unkind and irresponsible parent. Recall how, when the monster initially sees his creator, he extends his hands in a symbolic plea for compassion, sympathy, and approval; but the doctor turns a cold shoulder to the monster, “denying his paternity,” according to film scholar Glenn Erickson.
  • Existential angst: Frankenstein, at its core, asks the questions: “Why is man born to suffer, and why are we made to feel so alone in such a vast universe?”
  • Nature versus nurture: With his childlike naïveté and inexperience, the monster demonstrates that humans are born innocent but influenced and corrupted by their environment. This monster is not a mindless killing machine. He is the victim of scientific experimentation as well as torture and abuse at the hands of Fritz; he’s also the recipient of an abnormal brain. All of these things are not his fault.
  • The responsibility of the greater community to ensure that justice is done and to send a collective message that immorality and violating community standards will not be tolerated. Today, the lynch mob mentality and quick impulse for street justice can be easily criticized and dismissed, but this was a theme that would have resonated among 1931 audiences who might have been incensed by the growing concept of evolution versus creationism and the dangers of advancing technology and industrialism.

What is this movie’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Frankenstein’s greatest gift is that it bestowed on the world the most instantly identifiable and beloved monster of all time. If you were to rank the planet’s most famous, treasured, and merchandised monsters, Frankenstein would likely top the list. Like King Kong, he is a sympathetic character who appeals to all ages and transcends all cultures. Karloff’s unforgettable performance and Jack Pierce’s brilliant makeup are the key ingredients at work, but the Frankenstein monster is greater than – ahem –  the sum of his parts. He’s the default poster child for monsterdom everywhere and top character in the Universal horror cycle, spawning more sequels, remakes, imitators, and spoofs than any other horror icon other than Dracula. And even though this creature is no longer frightening, he brings us back to our childhoods – likely the youngish age when we first watched the film – and a simpler time when monochromatic movies ruled the world.


The winter of Jennifer's discontent

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Actress Jennifer Lawrence has proven her mettle in numerous films over the past decade. But it was an early turn in her career, and Winter’s Bone, that particularly surprised audiences and demonstrated her precocious thespian talents. Our CineVerse group delved into this 2010 feature a few weeks ago and agreed on the following observations (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What was surprising, effective, memorable, or curious about Winter’s Bone?

  • The story takes place and the film is shot in and around the Ozarks of Missouri, a backwoods territory replete with impoverished people, bygone relics, antiquated technology, and densely wooded terrain overgrown with vegetation and wildlife. The setting serves as an important character unto itself, infusing the film with an authenticity and hardscrabble aesthetic.
  • This movie doesn’t rely on hyperbole, exaggeration, clichés, or predictable elements to entertain and enthrall. The protagonist is a 17-year-old girl with no superpowers, there are no car chases or shootouts, the violence is suggested and not gratuitous, nudity is nonexistent, and the characters refrain from speechifying.
    • Ed Gonzales, film reviewer for Slant Magazine, wrote: “Winter’s Bone is never less than notable for the restraint it shows in places where other films would have indulged contrivance. Though unmistakably bleak, what’s remarkable about the story is that nothing about Ree’s life is presented to us for our tongue-clucking benefit. For all the hardship that afflicts the girl, the story still makes room for glimpses of how people celebrate their lives—through singing, drinking, card-playing—and take care of their own, while making clear that Ree doesn’t want anything more out of life than to protect her family and keep what she already has…you get a very real feel for how people relate to—care and abuse—one another. These are not characters conceived as conceits, hoping for our validation by way of their learning to transcend poverty or figuring out how to live with others (usually non-whites), but real people simply trying to get by and be left alone, and with their dignity intact.”
  • The filmmakers aren’t necessarily trying to damn or indict this subculture or area of the country. This isn’t some cautionary tale about the dangers of trespassing or living in Hick-town, USA. While we are shown the evils and violence inherent in many of this area’s denizens, we also see how they can bond together, help one another when least expected, and play and enjoy music collectively. Likewise, the children seem happy and well-cared for, despite lacking a parental presence from their biological mom and dad. Consider, too, how Ree chooses never to abandon her family, even though she’s nearly old enough to join the military or strike out on her own.
  • It’s a bit of a puzzle how Ree, even though her dad has been absent and her mother is all but nonexistent, can summon up on her own the strength, moral integrity, bravery, and wits she will need to overcome the central conflict/challenge of this story. Where did she learn or develop these traits, for example?
  • Actress Jennifer Lawrence is amazing in this role, only 19 years old at the time of filming yet demonstrating a precocity, street-smart insouciance, and intrinsic wisdom that belies her years.
  • The implied violence in this story is palpable yet remains offscreen, which is a wise decision. We can only imagine how brutal the beating was that she endured inside the barn, how grisly the task of using a chainsaw to remove her father’s hands would be, and how terribly her father must have suffered when he was killed. We don’t need flashbacks or intensely graphic imagery to conjure up the dark pictures in our minds.
  • The film and tale also feel evergreen because the filmmakers shrewdly opt to keep contemporary technology out of the proceedings, including modern mobile phones, state-of-the-art automobiles, 21st-century firearms, big-screen flat TVs, and other trappings of the modern age that would perhaps quickly date this movie or anchor it in a specific period.

Major themes

  • Sins of the father visited upon the child, or how it’s hard to escape your hereditary.
    • Peter Bradshaw, film critic for The Guardian, wrote: “The drama of Winter's Bone looks like the intramural wrangling of one gigantic dysfunctional family. Pretty much everyone Ree meets is her "kin" of some distant sort, and when she claims the connection in asking for help, it enforces a resentful acquiescence but also the promise of violence if she pushes the privilege too far – more violence, in fact, than a stranger would get.”
  • The power and perils of family ties.
  • The “consequences of trespassing upon the past,” according to Bradshaw.
  • Bucking the system and finding courage and resourcefulness in a dangerous world stacked against you.
  • The challenges women face in a patriarchal society and culture where females are often subjugated.
  • The underdog prevailing against all odds.

Similar works

  • Frozen River
  • Mud
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Nebraska
  • Hillbilly Elegy

Other films directed by Debra Granik

  • Stray Dog
  • Leave No Trace


Old-school romance

Thursday, November 18, 2021

What do you get when you pair a young box office favorite with a much older actor who hasn’t been considered a heartthrob or surefire hitmaker for nearly 20 years? The result is Teacher’s Pet, a relatively lightweight romantic comedy that’s long on runtime but perhaps a bit short in its ability to earn the status of an all-time classic. CineVerse took a classroom approach in evaluating this movie last week, which provoked the following observations (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What was interesting, unorthodox, surprising, or disappointing about Teacher’s Pet?

  • Clark Gable seems to be mugging a lot for the camera – offering comic glares and exaggerated reactions galore, which are arguably appropriate for a romantic comedy but perhaps overdone.
  • This is a long film for a romcom, clocking in at two hours. Debatably, the filmmakers could have pared this story and some of its subplots down to make it more effective.
  • Some hopelessly dated and archaic elements can’t be overlooked in this movie, including Gable grabbing Day for an unsolicited kiss at will; Gable remarking that he might have “belted” Day when asked what he would’ve done under a different circumstance; Mamie Van Doren singing “The Girl Who Invented Rock and Roll,” which sounds nothing like rock ‘n’ roll; and continual shots and scenes involving the characters smoking and drinking.
  • The depiction of the newspaper business and how it has been forced to adapt to the increasing competition remains relevant today. Instead of worrying about the threats of television and broadcast news, print journalism has remained increasingly marginalized over the past two decades thanks to the rise of the Internet and smartphones. This film also gives us a rare early glimpse at the actual workings of a busy newsroom and printing press.
  • Teacher’s Pet serves as yet another fitting vehicle for Day, who commonly appeared in “opposites-attract” narratives in which we get to hear her sing at least once.

Major themes

  • Street smarts vs. book smarts, and experiential education vs. academic education.
  • Stepping outside your comfort zone, familiar surroundings, and chosen way of life to broaden your knowledge.
  • The importance of maintaining journalistic integrity.
  • Opposites attract.
  • The value of rolling with the changes. Gable and Day each learn that they must have an open mind and embrace the other’s methodology and approach to journalism; Gable also explains that the newspaper business has been forced to adapt to survive, which remains a topical theme today.

Similar works

  • Doris Day romcoms like Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back
  • His Girl Friday
  • The Shop Around the Corner
  • Broadcast News
  • School of Rock

Other films directed by George Seaton

  • Miracle on 34th Street
  • The Country Girl
  • Airport


The sun never sets on this classic

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

In Cineversary podcast episode #41, host Erik Martin celebrates the 70th anniversary of A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens, by interviewing two great guests: George Stevens Jr., son of the director, founder of the American Film Institute, and author of the forthcoming book My Place in the Sun; and David Thomson, revered film critic and historian, author of numerous books on cinema including A Light in the Dark, and a frequent contributor to The Criterion Collection. Together, they examine why A Place in the Sun is worth celebrating all these years later, its cultural impact and legacy, what we can learn from the film in 2021, and more.

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download or subscribe to the Cineversary podcast using Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Breaker, Castbox, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at and email show comments or suggestions to


The plain truth about The Burning Plain

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Cast three Academy Award-winning A-list actresses in your film and you’ve got a surefire recipe for instant success, right? Actually, that answer is debatable, especially as it relates to The Burning Plain, a 2008 feature directed and written by Guillermo Arriaga, which didn’t exactly wow critics upon its release but which boasts some remarkable performances. Our CineVerse group performed a forensic examination of the cinematic kind on this movie last week and arrived at the following observations (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What is notable, distinctive, interesting, or unexpected about The Burning Plain?

  • The cast is first-rate, featuring three actresses at various stages of their careers: an older but still impressive Kim Basinger, a young fresh face in Jennifer Lawrence (before she became a superstar), and Charlize Theron in her prime giving another exceptional portrayal.
  • The narrative is unnecessarily convoluted and confusingly intertwined, presenting three different narratives to follow across three separate timelines. Told chronologically, this tale might have been more impactful and certainly more comprehensible. One could argue that telling the story linearly would defeat the payoff of the reveal that Sylvia is actually Mariana, but many viewers likely guess this early on anyway.
  • The tone is excessively serious, lacking some needed humor and comic relief in pinches to buffer the heavy-handed solemnity.
  • Some of the characters lack motivational plausibility. For example: If Mariana is smart enough to disconnect the mobile home gas connection, wouldn’t she be smart enough to also realize that the nearby gas container is a fire/combustion risk? Also, what did she expect to happen by setting the trailer on fire in the first place? And wouldn’t she be emotionally and psychologically devastated after accidentally killing two people, one of whom is her mother?

Major themes

  • Forbidden love. Both Gina and her daughter Mariana engage in secretive love affairs that threaten to destroy their families and would forever alter their futures.
  • Living with scars. Gina bears the challenging scars of a double mastectomy, while Mariana self-mutilates with sharp rocks and fire; the fact that Mariana can bear the pain of burning and cutting her skin without flinching suggests that she is both strong and resilient while also perhaps numb to the psychological trauma she has endured.
  • Navigating the challenges of mother-daughter relationships and intergenerational trauma. This story depicts three generations – Gina, her daughter Mariana, and her granddaughter Maria. Each subsequent generation seems to be suffering from or bearing the burdens of the previous generation.
  • Abandonment and neglect.
  • Is it possible to forgive the unforgivable?

Similar works

  • Random Hearts
  • Leaving
  • Crooked Hearts
  • Sex and Lucia
  • The Descendants

Other films written by Guillermo Arriaga

  • Amores Perros
  • 21 Grams
  • Babel


Color me scared

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Perhaps the most colorful and chromatically stimulating horror movie ever made, Dario Argento’s Suspiria was a shot across the bow in 1977, alerting filmmakers of macabre content that expressive hues meant good news to fans of scary films. Our CineVerse group explored this unsettling work of visual bravado last week and came away with the following conclusions (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What stood out as interesting, unexpected, disturbing, satisfying, or disappointing about Suspiria?

  • This film likely will disappoint when it comes to narrative cohesion, plot structure, character development, and plausibility. But because it employs a fairytale logic, expressionistic design, and surreal vibe, it’s not necessarily meant to be taken literally as a story. Like all memorable fairytales and bedtime stories, it infuses elements of over-the-top characters, situations, and symbolism to tell its tale and stir emotion.
  • The music and sound design of this film are especially noteworthy, as Suspiria is an assault on the auditory senses in particular, with the theme music being repeated again and again to get under your skin; vague whispers and nearly subliminal noises and sounds also serve to unnerve. The score by Goblin, particularly the main theme, was a major influence on John Carpenter when scoring the music for his film Halloween.
  • Despite its unintentional campiness—including the bad dubbing and plot holes—the highly stylized nature of the production and the visuals create a feeling of otherworldly uneasiness and psychedelic disorientation, helping to emphasize that we can’t necessarily trust what we are seeing or hearing as realistic.
    • Brian Eggert, an essayist for Deep Focus Review, wrote: “A phantasmagoria of unnatural colors and only slightly less unnatural situations, Suspiria remains Italian horror maestro Dario Argento’s finest achievement. His beautifully conceived aesthetic approach triumphs over the necessity for dramatic context, creating an experience that proves haunting because of how its colors and sounds tap into our unconscious, as opposed to our emotional identification with the narrative. Arranged in splashes of primary colors that illuminate every scene, the film’s visual boldness is not interested in hues and shades; rather, Argento employs solid, pure colors to hyperbolic effect. It’s a film entrenched in poetic reasoning and the power of image, and within those limitations, it proves engaging as a sensory experience, but not a logical or emotionally satisfying one. Indeed, Argento refuses to conform to traditional methods of storytelling, shot for shot logic, tonal consistency, or matters of characterization that might create a bond between the film and its audience.”
    • Eggert further wrote: “Argento doesn’t create suspense through his embrace of narrative tension; he does something more primal, creating chills through editing and mise-en-scène—beyond the stated uses of color. He’s tapping into something involuntary in his audience, something that cannot be easily explained. Take a sequence where Sara and Suzy share theories about the strange behaviors and secrets at Tanz. Argento keeps his camera on his actresses, who look around with paranoia, their eyes moving frantically in their sockets. He sustains this shot for so long that we forget what the girls are saying, and eventually, we share their terror.”

Major themes

  • Fairytale logic. As in classic folk stories and children’s tales like Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel, the virtuous and innocent protagonist overcomes her challenges and vanquishes her foes, in true good-conquers-evil fashion.
  • A stranger in a strange land, or a fish out of water. Suzy is an American truly out of her element in this German dance school.
  • Females are the dominant gender in a supernatural world. All the male characters in this film are less powerful, resourceful, intrepid, or intuitive than Suzy and her fellow dance academy denizens.
  • Colors can convey powerful emotions. Certain rooms and areas in the dance school are represented by a specific color, and we see how red trumps and overshadows all hues.

Similar works

  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
  • Grimm’s fairy tales
  • Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater
  • The Secret Beyond the Door
  • Rosemary’s Baby
  • Blue Velvet
  • Black Swan
  • The Red Shoes
  • The 2018 remake of Suspiria

Other films by Dario Argento

  • The Bird With the Crystal Plumage
  • Deep Red
  • Inferno


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